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via Instagram (@jacqueline.ilu and @atimxo)

The Insta-race gap: are Black influencers being paid less?

‘One of my white counterparts was offered £20,000 for the exact same collaboration. You can only imagine how crazy I felt’

20-year-old Jessiara Marriott first started creating fashion and lifestyle videos in March 2017. “Fast forward to now, I’m still creating fashion content, working with my favourite brands and sharing my journey through motherhood,” she tells me. “I’ve always been a creative person and knew I was going to go work for myself. I just didn’t know what I was going to be doing or how I was going to do it.”

Marriott began monetising her platforms last year, but despite her hundreds of thousands of followers and impressive engagement rates, she found that she was consistently shortchanged by brands. “Some of the biggest brands were paying me as little as £20 for a long shopping list of content,” she says. Marriott voiced her concerns to other creators – who were also women of colour – and found that her experience was sadly not uncommon. “It became apparent that this problem was ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ when negotiating with brands,” she says.

In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent surge in global support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Adesuwa Ajayi founded the @influencerpaygap Instagram account to monitor racial discrimination in the influencer industry. She was immediately inundated with submissions from Black influencers who reported being lowballed, exploited, and even unpaid, as well as requests for advice from creators unsure how to do business with brands.

The evidence for the influencer pay gap isn’t just anecdotal, either. In late 2020, influencer marketing agency SevenSix surveyed influencers as part of a report into the influencer pay gap, and found that 56 per cent of Black respondents believed that their ethnicity negatively impacted the amount they earn. Studies affirm this isn’t an unfounded belief by any means: in 2021, global communications firm MSL found that the racial pay gap between white and BIPOC influencers is 29 per cent. The gap between white and Black influencers is even wider, at 35 per cent. 

Thankfully, last month MPs recommended that the government investigate standards in the influencing industry, raising concerns about inconsistent pay rates and evidence of a racial pay gap. The digital, culture, media and sport committee said social media platforms are “not appropriately and consistently rewarding influencers for their work” and also pointed out that payment from brands “varies wildly”.

Jacqueline Smith (@jacqueline.ilu), 28, is an influencer with a focus on fashion for tall women. Like Marriott, she has also experienced brands offering her meagre fees. “I had a lot of situations where I knew that other people who were working on similar campaigns to me were being paid and I wasn’t,” she says. “There was a lot of tokenism as well – often I’d be the only Black creator or Black model on a campaign.”

Atim Ojera, 25, has had a similar experience. In 2021, a fashion brand approached Atim about a potential collaboration. “They wanted 10 posts in exchange for gifting. I genuinely couldn’t believe it,” she says. When Ojera asked to be paid properly for her work, the brand said it would be “impossible”.

“One of my white counterparts was also approached by this particular brand and they offered her £20,000 for the exact same collaboration. You can only imagine how crazy I felt,” she continues. “What made it worse is that at the time this brand chose their collaborations based on engagement rates, and my white counterpart had much lower engagement rates than I did.”

“I felt like a joke to these brands. I actually cried that day. That’s how frustrated I felt,” she adds. “I wouldn’t want any black influencer to go through what I went through, but the sad reality is that it’s all too common and these brands continue to get away with it because no real action has been taken against them.”

“Brands feel like they can pay influencers pennies for huge amounts of work and quick turnovers. I think there’s still a real lack of respect for creators, influencers, creatives” – Nabilla Doma

There are myriad reasons why the racial pay gap in the influencing industry is so pronounced. Nabilla Doma is a global influencer manager. She explains that as the industry is nascent, influencers are susceptible to exploitation. “There are a lot of things that people think they can get away with. Brands feel like they can pay influencers pennies for huge amounts of work and quick turnovers,” she says. “I think there’s still a real lack of respect for creators, influencers, creatives.”

Another part of the problem is that influencers and their talent managers often don’t know how much to charge, Doma says. “It is hard for influencers to know how much to price themselves – it's like making it up as you go along,” she says. “There’s a stark difference between what a South Asian influencer will charge for the same project as a white influencer with roughly the same following and same engagement rate. And obviously, from a brand’s perspective, you are never going to try and negotiate up.”

Marriott says that she’s now got a better idea of how much to charge, but she still finds that some brands are obstinate. “Even when I've been confident in sharing my rates with brands, I still get offered less, turned down or completely ignored. And when I follow up I get told that someone more suited has been chosen.”

She recalls one incident where “one of the biggest fast fashion brands out there” offered her a paltry fee for one project: “All of the Black creators were being paid pennies in comparison [to the white creators],” she says. “I went back to the brand and asked for a larger payout, to which they said they didn’t have the budget.”

So, how can we ensure fair pay for all and close the pay gap? “There needs to be more concrete guidelines,” Doma says. “Obviously it all depends on your following and engagement rate, but there needs to be some sort of understanding when it comes to payment, because it is a job. We are asking people for labour.” Notably, in their research MSL also found 92 per cent of all influencer respondents believed that pay transparency could eradicate the racial pay gap.

Smith, who works at an influencer marketing agency alongside influencing, affirms that it’s difficult for influencers to negotiate with brands on their own and adds that agencies also have an important part to play. “A big reason why I went into an agency was to be a voice and show people who look like me that there is a way forward,” she says. “I have that power to ensure that things are fair. For me, that was a way that I was able to actually go in and change things a little bit and just have more of a positive impact.”

Of course, the influencing industry does not exist in a vacuum. It’s entirely unsurprising that it’s a field plagued with racism and discrimination when these are issues which are yet to be eradicated in society. But that’s not to say we can’t do anything: with any luck, MPs will investigate the issue thoroughly and implement the regulations needed to ensure brands pay influencers fairly and consistently.

Marriott and Ojera are optimistic. “I have hope that the appropriate laws will get put in place as the influencer industry is serious business for those who are in it. I think I can speak for all black influencers when I say we are tired of the blatant discrimination,” Ojera says, while Marriott adds that POC influencers shouldn’t be discouraged from entering the industry. “If you enjoy your craft, creating, growing an audience and working with brands, then the right brands will find you and will pay you what you deserve,” she says.

Until then, people like Doma and Smith are doing important work within the industry by championing Black creators. You can make a difference too, without even having to move from your sofa, by following and supporting Black influencers. Not only because it’s one way of addressing the influencer pay gap – but because they’re good, too.